During a stellar professional career in which he compiled a record of 56-5, with 37 wins by knockout, Muhammad Ali was knocked down just four times. On three of those four occasions he went on to win the fight. The one in which he didn’t is the day that most boxing historians still regard as the most significant day in the sport’s history.
When Ali and Joe Frazier entered the ring on March 8, 1971, they both could lay claim to being undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, something that should be unlikely, if not logically impossible.
Ali had been champion from 1964 to 1967, and one of the dominant athletes of his time. But at the peak of his career, he lost a whopping three and a half years of his prime, when the powers that be in his sport stripped him of his title and banned him from boxing, as punishment for refusing to allow himself to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. During the three and a half years, Ali had become a folk hero around the nation and around the world, to go with his preexisting athletic fame. Ultimately he avoided prison in a case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court, and was allowed to resume his career. In late 1970, he won two fights against contenders, to reestablish himself in the division and put him in position for a bout to regain his championship.
While Ali had been away, Joe Frazier, like Ali a former Olympic champion, had defeated the other contenders and established himself as the new champion.
But Frazier was not just the best of the also-rans. He was a dominant slugger with one punch knockout power in his left hook. Most observers agreed that had Ali not been exiled from the sport, Frazier would have been a tough challenger, possibly the most difficult opponent of his career. Ali, regarded as one of the best boxers in history, would surely have been favored, but Frazier was no pushover.
As it was, given that Ali (31-0, 26 wins by knockout) was coming back from such a long layoff, Frazier (26-0, 23 wins by knockout) was installed as a modest favorite.
It was one fight that required zero promotion to be huge, yet with Ali of course it got maximum promotion. Few sporting events in history have been imbued with the political, social, and even religious significance of this one.
As a championship fight, it was scheduled for 15 rounds. Entering the 15th round, which can be seen here, Frazier was comfortably ahead on the scorecards: 7-6-1, 8-6, and 10-4. If Ali won the final round, he would make it close, but not win, as he would still lose on two scorecards and tie on the other. He would need a knockout.
But of course neither fighter knew this. Ali partisans mostly felt he was well ahead, Frazier partisans mostly felt he was well ahead, and more neutral observers mostly felt the fight was very close and might well hang in the balance. (After the fight, the scoring raised plenty of eyebrows.)
The first 14 rounds had been a titanic struggle, one of the rare major fights that lives up to the hype. Ali had landed far more punches, but Frazier had landed the heavier punches. Ali had had especially good rounds in the 9th and 10th; Frazier’s best rounds were probably the 8th and 11th. In the 11th he had had Ali perhaps as hurt as he had ever been in his career, but had not been able to knock him down and finish him off.
By now as the fight wound down, both boxers were utterly exhausted, and spent much time leaning on each other in clinches, trying to steal a few precious seconds of rest. Frazier’s face was badly battered and swollen, as he tried to peer through the slits of his eyes to see his opponent. (He would be hospitalized for an extended period after the fight.)
In spite of his alarming condition, Frazier was still mentally and physically sharp enough to come through with the biggest moment of the fight.
One of the points he and his trainers had discussed before the fight was a tendency they had seen in Ali to sometimes telegraph that he is going to throw a right uppercut by the way he drops his shoulder.
Somehow, this deep into the fight, early in the 15th round Frazier spotted what he’d been looking for. From in close, the fatigued Ali got a little lazy in how he wound up for an uppercut, and Frazier pounced. Packing everything he had into one final punch to try to end it, Frazier landed his patented left hook squarely to Ali’s jaw. Referee Arthur Mercante later said Frazier had hit Ali as hard as a man can be hit. Ali was flattened.
If time could have been stopped the moment Ali landed on the canvas, the overwhelming majority of observers would surely have guessed that he was out, that there was no way he could recover from such a devastating knockdown.
But one of the traits that made Ali great was his extraordinary recuperative powers. He got up, and he got up almost immediately. Clearly he was hurt, as his jaw had already commenced swelling to an alarming degree, but he fought on.
Frazier did his best to follow up, and managed to land several additional scary blows. Ali remained in trouble but did not go down again. Late in the round, Ali recovered to the extent that he was actually able to flurry with some effectiveness and outbox Frazier down the stretch. But it was much too little, much too late to win the round, or the fight.
Most experts say the fight took a great deal out of both men, and that Frazier especially did not have as successful a career after that as he otherwise might have. He lost his title less than two years later to George Foreman. Ali too struggled through some career doldrums, struggling with fighters that in the past he would have dominated, and even losing to one of them–Ken Norton. But eventually he was able to put his career back on track by winning an unlikely victory over Foreman to finally regain his title.
Ali and Frazier met twice more, in 1974 and 1975, both also excellent fights, with Ali prevailing narrowly in each. Neither fighter scored a knockdown in those two fights.
The left hook that floored Ali in the 15th round of their first fight was the greatest moment in Joe Frazier’s career, and it would get plenty of votes as the most memorable moment in boxing history.
Jim Amato, “March 8, 1971: Ali-Frazier I…The Greatest Show On Earth.” East Side Boxing.
“Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier 1 – The Fight Of The Century.” Boxing Memorabilia.